Brandon Adams and I stand at the base of Mescalito at 4:30 a.m., racking up for an ascent that we think is going to take 16-24 hours. The prior speed record was set by three legendary climbers. Are Brandon and I in their league?
Brandon is a climbing ranger in Yosemite and unquestionably the best aid climber of our generation. I’m just an academic who has figured out how to do easy aid climbing quickly. I recollect the outstanding adventures we have shared over the years—we set three world-class speed records together (The Shield, 8:55; Flight of the Albatross, 9:32; and Waterfall Route 6:29) and did the first ascent on one of the proudest walls in Zion Canyon with Pangea (5.10 A4 1,800’). Of course we can do this this!
Brandon fires up his Bluetooth speaker and puts on a playlist he made for the day. The metal starts blaring and I take off.
Research suggests that somewhere around 3,600 years ago, the peace of a pre-European Yosemite Valley was interrupted by the shaking of a large earthquake with an epicenter in the eastern Sierra. With a mighty roar, a 2.2 million m3 (Washington Column-sized) section of El Capitan collapsed, sending debris across Yosemite Valley and perhaps damming part of the Merced River. As the dust cleared, and the southeast face of El Cap emerged into view, the tallest, steepest wall in Yosemite had formed. The face that catches the first light of a new day: the Dawn Wall.
The Dawn Wall has presented one of the most challenging objectives on El Capitan for generations. It was first climbed by Warren Harding in 1970 in an effort that involved 28 days on the wall and hundreds of bolts. Over the next four decades, this was the realm of hard aid climbing—a pursuit that is slow, methodical and terrifying. Of course, this magnificent wall was recently made world-famous by Tommy Caldwell’s many-year effort to establish a free climb that links together portions of these aid climbs to create the hardest free climb on Earth.
One style of climbing that is rarely practiced here is speed climbing. While the race for the fastest time on the Nose made it into popular culture, the Dawn Wall saw little attention from the small group of climbers who practice this art. The sustained difficulty of routes on this formidable wall means that almost all speed ascents have taken more than a day. The fastest time up the wall was 23:28 via the route Mescalito (5.7 A3 2,800’) and was set in 1998 by Dean Potter, Jose Pereya, and Russ Mitrovitch.
And now here Brandon and I are, trying to beat that time.
I lead the first block to Anchorage Ledge, five pitches up. It feels like I am in a dream state, clipping fixed gear, placing rattly cams, and making as many free moves as a 5.12 climber can do with reasonable speed. The rock is low angle and Brandon jugs so fast. I short fix at every belay yet can only climb about 20 feet before he catches up. My mind is empty. We are a machine moving over stone.
In 2.5 hours we reach the ledge and it is Brandon’s turn. During a speed climb, Brandon always launches into his block like a great warrior wielding a broadsword and screaming an ancient war cry while charging into the enemy battle line. His focus is fierce and he moves upwards at a rapid pace that never slows. The pitches are sustained, traversing and overhanging. Heaving and panting, I jug as fast as I can while Cannibal Corpse, Slayer and Tool ring across the southeast face.
Suddenly we are on the Bismarck—a dinner table-sized ledge 2,000 feet up the wall with a sweeping view of the rest of the southeast face. I check the time and it’s 2:15 in the afternoon. We are shocked. I take the lead for the final block to the top. My arms are cramping and my body is fatigued from 1,500 feet of overhanging jugging. Brandon plays “Invincible” by Tool. He knows exactly where my soul is right now:
Long in tooth and soul
Longing for another win
Lurch into the fray
Weapon out and belly in
To remain consequential
Bold and proud
Of where I’ve been
But here I am
— “Invincible,” by Tool
Brandon’s armor is strong. He splits his time between Bishop and Yosemite. His wife climbs El Cap with him and he is the fittest he’s ever been. My armor is thin. Three years ago, I moved to the Ventura area for a tenure-track professorship. I became a father 18 months ago and I’m writing a guidebook to the High Sierra. My life is a relentless barrage of family and work responsibilities. I barely climb or sleep and am exhausted at a cellular level.
Leading off the Bismarck, I feel that fatigue yet I’m reassured by the fact that we still have six hours of daylight and only eight pitches to go. I look down at Brandon and I can tell he feels just as relaxed. Typically, he leads the upper parts of the routes when speed is the goal. He must climb when his partners are physically and emotionally exhausted. After all, he is the warrior. It delights me to see him relaxing and enjoying himself.
Quips and jocular curses fly during the last several pitches. Brandon pulls over the lip and touches the summit tree and I check the timer: 13 hours 46 minutes 48 seconds. Holy shit! We can’t believe how well that went. Texts of congratulations fly in from family and friends: Our wives, Tom Herbert, Mark Hudon, Hans Florine and others. We are buzzing and cackling with laughter. Was there a microdose of LSD in that water jug we found on the Bismarck or is this the psychedelic state achieved during truly transcendent climbing that Doug Robinson writes of?
We walk off the summit in daylight, listening to Tool and talking about what adventure will be next.
Twirling round with this familiar parable
Spinning, weaving round each new experience
Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing
— “Parabola,” by Tool